The more I think about Avengers: Infinity War, the more it reminds me of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Yes. You read that right. I just compared an overstuffed superhero blockbuster to the works of the Bard, the greatest playwright of them all. How could I compare pedestrian schlock to high art?
Well, first of all, I don’t really believe in the concept of “high art,” that one type of art or fiction is better or truer than all of the others. Secondly, William Shakespeare was not considered “high art” in his day. I remember reading a quote from one of his contemporaries when I was in college, and that quote mentioned his “little Latin and small Greek.” That phrase means that Shakespeare did not have a high-end classical education. He was the working-middle class son of a glover who had the English Renaissance equivalent of a high school diploma. The plots of his works, like the plots of the MCU films, aren’t that great. To demonstrate this, I’ll spell out the plot of Romeo and Juliet below:
Romeo and Juliet: A feud between two prominent families in Verona reignites after their servants get into a scuffle involving dick jokes and flipping the bird. Family #1 has a goofy son who’s mooning over a girl who’s not interested in him, until he and his friends crash a party at Family #2’s house, and he meets the daughter of Family #2. They fall in love at first sight, meet up after the party, and they agree to get married the next day. The boy arranges the ceremony with his friar friend, who hopes that a marriage between the two families will end the feud. The two teenagers are married, but the boy gets into a fight with his new wife’s cousin, who kills the boy’s best friend. So the boy kills his new cousin-in-law, and the prince banishes him. The boy and girl have their one hot night together, then part ways, and the girl flips out at her parents because they want her to marry a nobleman. She meets with the friar, who gives her a sleeping potion that will make her appear dead, and he sends a note to her husband explaining the situation so he can fetch her and they can run away together. But the note never gets there because one of his colleagues couldn’t get into the town where the boy was supposed to be, Mantua, because it was closed due to a breakout of the plague. So the girl takes the potion and everyone thinks she’s dead, and this news travels to her husband, who never got the explanatory letter. So he buys poison and goes back to Verona to see her laid out. The boy bumps into her other suitor on the way, and he kills that suitor. Then he sees her laid out, and he takes the poison. Then his wife wakes up, finds him dead, and stabs herself with his dagger. Their parents are very sad about it, and the feud is dead, along with their kids.
Is this plot really all that great? No, probably not. If anything, it’s extremely convoluted, and I have a feeling that if it were written today, readers and viewers would take to the internet to declare that “What are the odds that Mantua would be closed because of plague right when Romeo got there? And how long did it take him to get there? What’s the timeline?” and “They just fall in love with each other at first sight? That’s not realistic at all.” (Okay, people may really complain about that last one.) The thing is, despite what the internet hive mind may want, tragedies (and all stories in general) will not make perfect sense. They are not designed to be logic puzzles; stories are designed to make us think and to move us on an emotional level. Tragedies, in particular, are meant to break our hearts.
I bring Romeo and Juliet up because, oddly enough, I noticed that it and Avengers: Infinity War have a similar tragic structure. Both works start out with an outbreak of violence that propels the story forward. In R&J’s case, it’s the opening scene where the servants of the Montagues and the Capulets begin fighting. These servants reignite the feud and cause Verona’s Prince Escalus to tighten the punishments for such outbursts. This eventually leads to Romeo’s exile after he kills Tybalt in the middle of the play. In Infinity War, the initial outbreak of violence is the opening where Thanos is finishing laying waste to the Asgardian refugee ship, killing fan-favorite Loki in the process.
Now, I’ve seen a few memes on social media where fans either a) question whether Loki is dead at all, or b) question why Loki tried to kill Thanos with a dagger rather than using magic to kill him or to shapeshift and get out of there. Again, stories are not designed to make perfect sense. Also, Loki may know he’s outmatched. After all, Thanos has the Black Order (his adopted kids who aren’t named Gamora or Nebula), which includes Ebony Maw (the noseless one that Iron Man calls “Squidward”), who is a powerful sorcerer. Thanos and his cronies will find and kill Loki if he tried to escape via magical means. So he takes the simple, defiant option and exits the story to show us that Thanos means business, and that he’s capable of taking any character down, no matter how popular or beloved they may be. In this MCU installment, no one is safe.
So in both Romeo and Juliet and Avengers: Infinity War, the first major act of violence determines the stakes of the story: new iterations of the Montague/Capulet feud will lead to the perpetrator’s execution–this is later commuted to exile for Romeo; Thanos will kill/destroy anyone and anything who gets in his way while he tries to balance the universe.
After that first major act of violence, the plot moves forward in other ways. Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love; the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy become aware of Thanos’s search for the Infinity Stones. Stuff happens, and then a second major instance of violence occurs. In R&J, it’s the death of Tybalt, Juliet’s hotheaded cousin. In Infinity War, it’s the death of Gamora, a Guardian of the Galaxy and Thanos’s adopted daughter.
Now, while they still have parallel tragic structures, these violent midpoints show the differences in the scope of tragedy in Romeo & Juliet vs. the scope of tragedy in Avengers: Infinity War. You see, the deaths of Tybalt and Gamora are deaths that were caused by choices that the respective protagonists made. Yes, Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. The writers and directors have said as much. These deaths are choices that Romeo and Thanos cannot turn back from. They do what they do, and in the process, they seal everyone’s fate. However, Romeo’s choices are disastrous from a dynastic point of view: he commits murder to avenge the death of his best friend, and this leads to his death and his wife’s, which leads to the end of their families’ dynasties. Their families will never grow or change–they will die with their heir. (In fact, most of Shakespeare’s tragedies involve dynasties, including and sometimes especially, monarchies: look at Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, for instance.) Thanos’s choices, however, are disastrous for the entire universe–killing Gamora allows him to access the Soul Stone, which takes him one step closer to acquiring all six Infinity Stones for his Infinity Gaunlet, which allows him to snap away half of all life in the universe. He has to kill Gamora because the Soul Stone requires something of the person who seeks it: they must exchange the life of the person they love most for the Soul Stone. So in a way, Thanos’s horrible, violent choice is worse than Romeo’s because its stake are higher and because it’s the acted of a parent killing a beloved child to get what they want more than anything, rather than a simple act of teenage revenge.
Now, before I go further, I have to address the fact that people who have been the victims of parental abuse and/or have had to put up with narcissistic parents do not like the fact that the Soul Stone accepts Thanos’s screwed up, abusive parental affection for Gamora as love. That, I believe, is part of the tragedy of Infinity War: I interpreted that moment as the Soul Stone accepting whatever its seeker defines as love. If that supposed love is abusive or neglected or otherwise hurtful, the Soul Stone accepts it anyway because that’s what the seeker believes love is. After all, the Infinity Stones are not gentle objects; they are objects of volatile power and often bring some level of destruction in their wake.
Okay, back to our discussion of tragic structure.
Then, after these disastrous choices are made and our protagonists feel the anguish of what they’ve done, there are several final tragic flaws in the timing of the remaining events. In Romeo and Juliet, it’s Friar Laurence’s letter not making it to Romeo in Mantua and Romeo arriving at the Capulet mausoleum just a little bit early, so he commits suicide right before Juliet wakes up, which leads to her suicide and the overall deaths of the Montague and Capulet families’ futures. In Infinity War, the two tragic bits of timing are Gamora’s lover Star Lord finding out she’s dead just as he and his fellow Guardians and some Avengers are trying to pry the Infinity Gauntlet off of Thanos’s hand, and Thor plunging his new ax, Stormbreaker, into Thanos’s chest instead of his head, allowing Thanos to quip and snap his fingers, erasing half of life throughout the universe.
I intentionally used a goofy meme about Star Lord’s behavior in Infinity War because I think it illustrates just how much modern audiences are not used to experiencing tragedies outside of high school and college English classes. Judging from the memes and reactions I’ve seen on social media, many people freaked out extremely hard when Star Lord lost it and punched Thanos just as the Avengers were getting the Gauntlet away from him. Fans even sent mean messages to Chris Pratt, telling him to go screw himself. He responded to this by posting a picture of two Star Lord action figures humping each other to his Instagram story. I didn’t freak out when Star Lord lashed out at Thanos as soon as he realized that Thanos killed Gamora. Of course he reacted that way. He loves Gamora, and he’s still very much the lonely little boy who lost his mother to cancer in the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. That reaction is very in-character for him. Thus, his reaction makes sense, and it’s part of the overall tragedy: his reaction leads to a choice that leads to greater disaster. That’s what happens in tragedies: terrible choices lead to terrible events that create a disastrous trail of death and destruction.
However, I have a feeling that many fans and audience members could not handle this tragic turn of events and began lashing out via memes and angry messages to Chris Pratt because they believed they were promised a happy ending. When people go to see a superhero movie, they expect the hero(es) to prevail. That’s just how the superhero genre works, and that’s why a lot of critics write the genre off as having little merit. But, to quote Dr. Seuss’s Oh! The Places You’ll Go!, “Except when you don’t. Because sometimes, you won’t.” This was never going to be a story with a happy ending. Avengers: Infinity War is a modern tragedy about failing to save the world. About being unable to save it. We may want happy endings, but sometimes we can learn more from a sad and/or upsetting ending.
You see, both Infinity War and Romeo and Juliet almost have happy endings. ALMOST. If only Romeo had arrived a few minutes later, if only Juliet had awakened a little bit sooner; if only Star Lord hadn’t lost his temper over Gamora’s death, if only Thor had gone for the head instead of the heart. The audience and the heroes almost got what they wanted, only to have it ripped from their grasp at the last second. That’s why we react to these kinds of tragedies so viscerally. It’s why people flipped out at Chris Pratt. We feel that loss as sharply as the characters do.
But wait, didn’t I mention earlier that Thanos is our protagonist? Yes. So what does he lose? Well, as he tells a vision of young Gamora, “Everything.” He balanced the universe, but in the process he sacrificed all of his adoptive children, except for his least favorite, Nebula, as well as his armies. Additionally, the Gauntlet looks damaged after the finger-snap, so he lost that, too. In the end, his losses outweigh his gains. Thanos experiences a true Pyrrhic Victory.
Finally, quite a few people (including film critics) view these kinds of films as products rather than art (which they are to a certain degree), so it’s possible to see this film as a failed product, since it upset so many consumers. But fiction is not like other products. It doesn’t have to make its consumers thoroughly happy in order to be successful. A novel, a poem, or a superhero film can upset its audience and still be regarded as well-executed. With fiction, success should not be rated in how happy the audience is at the end of the experience, but how emotionally engaged the audience is with the material. As far as I can tell, audiences engaged pretty deeply with Avengers: Infinity War, and their strong feelings about what happened in this film should be the benchmark of this film’s success, far more than its box office numbers.
So if you re-watch this film and find yourself becoming upset at certain points in the story, that fine. That means Avengers: Infinity War has done its job, even if you don’t like the ending.
Note: I know that this film has an as-of-yet untitled direct sequel arriving next year, and many fans believe every dead character will be brought back. I don’t know that every death will be undone, but I know that for the characters who come back, nothing will be the same. As of this writing, Avengers: Infinity War is still a tragedy, and the emotional effects of this story cannot be undone, even if the dead characters come back.